Last week, Bryan asked me why I always insisted on putting a space before and after an em dash. To me, it's instinctual to put in the spaces. Why wouldn't I? But Bryan's question got me to quickly look deeply as to why I did it.
Having worked at a newspaper, my editor insisted that writers always put a space between any em dash. "It looks cleaner that way," he told me. "Makes it easier to read." And it does. Let's take a look at an example, using a sentence from Bryan's recent article:
Today, we have expanded our efforts to include products, events and publishing — all to help our customers design great products faster.
Notice the space before and after the em dash. Here's how it would look without the spaces:
Today, we have expanded our efforts to include products, events and publishing—all to help our customers design great products faster.
Without the space, the words would be smashed together with the em dash. More than that, if everything was smooshed, the dramatic impact of the em dash would be undercut. But it's a stylistic choice, your mileage may vary depending what stylebook you pick up. We've even obliterated the Oxford comma, or serial comma, from that sentence (and from our stylebook). That's because it's more conversational, more informal without it.
However, these are the stylistic choices that designers and those who write their content must face themselves when considering how content falls on the page. Is a space important between em dashes? Does it make the page look cleaner? Oxford comma or not? What font should be used? How big? How small? Bold or not?
These are deadly important questions to ask considering that most Americans are on a daily 34 GB diet of content, a 100,000 words cross our eyes a day, and we need to be able to combat shorter attention spans.
We Control the Content
Another way to think about the writerly design of content is control of your page. Seems no detail is too small. Talking about this with Jackie, she mentioned how punctuation is extremely important to the design of a page:
The more we 'lose control' as the world rapidly adopts multi-screen browsing habits, we have to perfect those things that we can control.
As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Those details can make the difference in enticing our audience to read our content. It's how we stand out. We can't lose control of our words, sentences and punctuation, especially those of us who are writing that content. We have to pick a style — spaces before an em dash, serial comma or not — and stick with it. In so many words, we control the content, even if it's something as small as an em dash.